I’ve got to admit, when it comes to our preference in choice destinations, a desert setting wouldn’t be the first on our list. Maybe not even second. But easily a strong third. Yet now that we’ve been exposed to a variety of arid, cactus-filled, barren regions, those deserts kind of began to grow on us. To say we’re developing an appreciation of them in all their different varieties and moods might not be too far off the mark either.
Maybe a desert landscape will never supplant a mountainous one in our heart of hearts, but still we’re finding an enjoyment in our hikes through them, and desert camping isn’t so bad either. There’s something about first sights can be deceiving. Take time to look closer . . . a second glance might make a difference.
In truth, a desert sunset can easily hold its own with any other—and generally they’re not as rare. Much easier to witness, you just need to be out-of-doors. Sit back, just wait, bring along some friends, and soon the show begins. Not a better way to close down your day. A desert certainly has its assets.
(But we could do without those colder nights and the bouts of strong winds that have a way of cropping up.)
Still on our way west, we left the Tucson area behind, but we weren’t done with the Sonoran Desert. It wasn’t long before we diverged from Interstate 10, taking a lonely road to the southwest, driving through some more of that wide open empty territory we’d become accustomed to. A couple of monotonous hours later we turned due south, heading directly for the Mexican border.
A couple of border checks later, we were pulling into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Another first for us.
Known as the Green Desert, we quickly observed that the park is filled with giant saguaros, chollas, and ocotillos, to name just a few. But where oh where was its namesake to be seen??? As the miles clicked by we hadn’t come across any.
Small by national park standards, the monument is slightly over 500 square miles in size. Set aside in 1937 to preserve and protect a pristine example of Sonoran Desert habitat, the park is located virtually on the Mexican border. Much more than an endless stretch of desert landscape, mountain ranges rise up both to the east and west as you make your way south through the park. But where was the elusive Organ Pipe cactus???
Two scenic roads wind through the park, both having loops that encompass mountain ranges. We made the choice to try a segment of the 37-mile long Puerto Blanco Drive. Undoubtedly, we soon discovered, one of the most scenic roads in Arizona, it travels deep into the unspoilt backcountry. Crossing cactus plains and traversing mountain foothills, it encircles the Puerto Blanco Mountains. Besides the varied plants of the Sonoran Desert, the drive passes close to old mines, springs, historic sites and a tree-lined oasis, giving access to several hiking trails. With most of the route a one-way drive, only the first 5 and last 13 miles of the loop are two-way. With sunset a mere hour or so away, we only drove that first 5 miles of the route. Scenic as it was, alas, no organ pipe cactus was to be seen.
How can this be, we asked. The park’s namesake and yet so well-hidden??? More determined than ever, we (okay, maybe just myself) weren’t heading back to camp as defeated dogs. There HAD to be one somewhere nearby. And that’s when I had my epiphany . . . the Visitor’s Center, of course!
Although closed for the day, the Kris Eggle Visitor Center is open most days (except federal holidays) in the winter months. Typical of many national park centers, a short nature trail showcasing a microcosm of plants found in the park makes a simple, scenic loop through a garden environment. Maybe not exactly “out in the wild”, still I had found the prize. And she was a beauty! Now I could return home as a happy camper this night.
This was just the start!
Mornings in the desert can be a sweet thing . . . and most of them are! With the rising sun, the air is cool (not cold!), refreshing and yes, there’s a purity about it too. Just the way we like to begin our day . . . a short walk with a warm drink in hand, greeting other early risers. You just can’t help but smile.
But if camping is your modus operandi, take note! Twin Peaks Campground has only first-come, first-served sites. With 208 no-hookup sites, a large number of those are in a no-generator area. Nevertheless, you’ll find most sites, all with paved pads, nicely spaced apart, with desert plants and landscaping to fill in between. A very pleasant setting and a wonderful place to stay.
There’s more to interest park visitors than the natural features of Organ Pipe Cactus. The prevalence of border crossings and illegal immigration was an interest we couldn’t resist. Although Arizona has more than its fair share of immigration checks and border inspections, perhaps none is more convenient than the one on the park’s southern boundary. Lukeville, Arizona, only about 4 miles from the Visitor Center, was first on our list today. Chris was especially eager.
I’ve got to admit, it was surely an eye-opener to see what actually exists. In fact, it was a little unbelievable. First off, here at Lukeville, it’s a fence, not a wall.
Extending a mere 3.5 miles on either side of Lukeville, it is 16 feet high, designed to prevent pedestrians from crossing over.
Chris didn’t see it as much of an obstacle. Give him a little time and he’d be over in a jiff. Better yet, he said, a pair of wire cutters would prove more convenient.
Maybe a wall should be built? It was certainly food for thought.
Occasionally we saw an official border crossing guard come driving along the perimeter. I guess nothing will get past them.
No one ever came to check us out, so no foul no harm, I guess.
We hung around for the ranger talk shortly thereafter. She filled us in on some statistical facts, as well as a sad story about the murder of a park ranger shot by illegal criminals crossing over the border.
For sure, it’s another world down there on the border.
We filled our time here easily . . . with hikes and drives and a trip to a nearby town. When it came to getting the most bang for our bucks, it was the Ajo Mountain Drive that topped the list. If you want to catch the whole essence of this place (and see more than a couple lonely Organ Pipe cacti), this is the scenic drive to take!
A narrow, one-way unpaved road heads towards the foothills of the Ajo Range, the high, rocky ridge which forms the eastern boundary of the preserve. Although only 21 miles in length, the rutted, sometimes washboardy route that has its fair share of twists and turns, can take more than a couple hours to drive. Add more time to stop and take some pictures, or maybe hike one of the trails along the way.
Soon enough, you won’t have to wait long, the organ pipe cacti begin to make their appearance. A few at first, of varying size . . . but then, just wait!
Rarely found in our country, but common in Mexico, the plant is predominantly found up to 3,000 feet in elevation on rocky hillsides where it can absorb the most sun. Very sensitive to cold (a hard frost could kill it), it is rarely found in low desert areas. The plant is slow growing, taking 150 years to reach maturity. When fully developed, it can reach a width of 12 feet and a height of 15 feet. The older plants eventually produce white flowers which are open at night and close in the morning light, being pollinated by bats. The national monument protects the vast majority of the organ pipe cacti in our country.
And the hard edges of desert scenery soften in the pastel light of early evening.
Don’t be in a rush to leave the desert behind as darkness settles over the landscape. In the last rays of light when the sun disappears, that’s when you can see a whole different picture. And maybe, just maybe, develop a whole new admiration for something you never saw an attraction for.
Melinda & Chris